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14 December 2010


My interest in Urdu poetry stemmed from my childhood. Listening to songs from old Hindi movies with my father introduced me to the poetry that is the soul of that very elegant language. That interest was furthered by a friend, who, alas, is no more, but who, in the short while that I knew him between the ages of 11 and 16, did more to show me the enchanting world of shaairi, nazms and ghazals. I have often wanted to learn Urdu, because some of the words tantalise me with their meanings; I *know* what they stand for, I can guess at the meaning in context, but it's not the same as being really able to understand the lines in its entirety. My trusted Urdu - English - Urdu dictionary helps immensely but it always feels like reading a book in translation - the flavour of the original, the lyricism is missing.

Years passed, and life intervened. My many interests remained buried under the chores and responsibilities that are thrust willy-nilly upon one, and, if at all I thought about poetry in general, and Urdu poetry in particular, it was with a tinge of nostalgia. Lack of time gave me a ready-made excuse to withdraw from any and/or all interests that did not coincide with my duties.

It is during a particularly trying period that I encountered a friend who sparked that interest off again. Amidst conversations that ranged from books to films to music, I brushed off the dust and cobwebs and began to read again. But listening to Urdu poetry was not the same as reading it. Especially when you do not know the language. For one, it is difficult to find good English translations from Urdu, though I know that Dr KC Kanda has done some very definitive work in this area. I have his translation of Faiz's poetry, but have never come across any of his translations of Ghalib.

Mirza Ghalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz have always been among my favourite poets - I suppose I should give credit where credit is due. My interest in Ghalib was spiked by a Doordarshan serial of the same name, which starred Naseeruddin Shah as the famed poet. The problem with any available translation is that while it helps to give you an  idea of what the verses mean, so much of the beauty of the sheir, even their meaning, is lost in translation. It would be nice if someone had the ability and the fluency in both languages, and the talent to  be able to translate from Urdu to English without having to sacrifice the lyrical quality of a beautiful language.

I was tempted to attempt some translating of my  own. A task made all the more difficult  since I do not know enough Urdu to really understand its complexities. The difficulties are intensified by the fact that there are different translations of the same phrase, especially of the compound Urdu words. Unless you are sure of the context, it becomes difficult, if not downright impossible to translate it correctly. This is my first attempt, and a pitiful one at that, of a very famous ghazal by Ghalib (trust me to start at the very top!), बाज़ीचा-ए-अत्फाल मेरे आगे.

बाज़ीचा इ अत्फाल है दुनिया मेरे आगे
होता है शब् ओ रोज़ तमाशा मेरे आगे
The world, to me is just a playground
where drama plays out night and day 


इक खेल है औरंग इ सुलेमान मेरे नज़दीक
इक बात है 'एइजाज़ इ मसीहा मेरे आगे
The throne of Solomon is mere commonplace
And the messiah's miracles are but ordinary tales


जुज़ नाम नहीं सूरत इ आलम मुझे मन्ज़ूर
जुज़ वेह्म नहीं हस्ती इ आशिया
मेरे आगे
The world is surely more than just a name
And home more than just belief

होता है निहां गर्द में सेहरा मेरे होते
घिसता है जबीं ख़ाक पे दरिया मेरे आगे
The desert hides itself in dust
where I am,
While the river bows its forehead to the ground

मत पूछ के क्या हाल है मेरा तेरे पीछे
तू देख के क्या रंग तेरा मेरे आगे
Ask not how I exist without you, my dear,
See instead how you blossom when you meet my gaze

सच कहते हो, खुद्बीं ओ खुद आरा न क्यों हूँ?
बैठा है बुत इ आइना सीमा मेरे आगे
'tis true I am egotistical and proud and adore myself

But, my beloved, it is but a reflection of your mirror-like beauty (clear like a mirror? beloved with a face like a mirror?)

फिर देखिये अंदाज़ इ गुल अफ्शानी इ गुफ्तार
रख दे कोइ पैमाना ओ सहबा मेरे आगे
Then watch me scatter the blossoms of witty discourse
Just place a goblet of wine in front of me

नफ़रत का गुमान गुज़ारे है, मैं रश्क से गुज़रा
क्यों कर कहूं, लो नाम न उसका मेरे आगे
Hatred fills my envious mind with suspicion
Why, I know not, but do not speak his name

ईमान मुझे रोके है जो खींचे है मुझे कुफ्र
काबा मेरे पीछे है कलीसा मेरे आगे
Faith stops me, temptation goads me on
Kaaba lies behind me, the church / cathedral gates lie before

आशिक हूँ, पे माशूकेफरेबी है मेरा काम
मजनूँ को बुरा कहती है लैला मेरे आगे
I am a lover, deceitful yet charming,
so much so Laila speaks ill of Majnu when I am around

खुश होते हैं पर वस्ल में यों मर नहीं जाते
आयी शबेहिजरान की तमन्ना मेरे आगे
We rejoice at our union, but never think of dying
But the night of separation's desire hastens into being

है मौजज़न इक कुल्ज़ुमेखून, काश, यही हो
आता है अभी देखिये क्या क्या मेरे आगे
This sea of blood is hopefully the last
Yet who knows what scenes still await my gaze

गो हाथ को जुम्बिश नहीं आँखों में तो दम है
रहने दो अभी सागारोमीना मेरे आगे
Though all movements have stilled, my eyes still flicker
Let the wine goblet remain

हमपेशा ओ हम मशरब ओ हमराज़ है मेरा
ग़ालिब को बुरा क्यों कहो अच्छा मेरे आगे
He is my fellow-tradesman, born of the same faith, my confidante,
Oh, do not malign Ghalib in front of me.

This is by no means a great or even a good translation; it is just something that I was curious enough to feel impelled to do. And if the poetry, the imagery, the beauty of the verses have been lost, it is solely my failure.

To make up for that, here are two really wonderful interpretations of this ghazal. The first is Jagjit Singh's version from Mirza Ghalib.

The other is by Shujaat Hussain Khan, a noted sitar artiste from the Imadkhani gharaana.

Two great artistes, one wonderful listening experience.
Update: A friend sent me a translation that is supposed to  be by Dr Kanda. I cannot find any citations or websites qualifying the same, so I cannot be sure, but I am posting it as is.
The world to me is a kindergarten, where children sport and play, A show goes on before me, be it night or day.
Solomon's throne is to me a bauble commonplace, The miracles of Christ are just a trivial tale.
The world to me is a mere phantom, without a solid core, The worldly things are to me, mere illusive shades.
Ask me not how I fared in your absence sweet, Rather see how you blossom before my eager gaze.
The desert hides itself in dust seeing me approach, The river rubs its brow on earth, fallen prostrate.
I am self-conscious, true, and self-adorning too, Why not, when a mirror-like beauty stares me in the face.
Place a peg of wine before me, should you like to see, The blossoming of my tongue, the flowering of my prate.
Faith tugs me back, heresy goads me on, Kaaba lies behind me, in front the temple gate.
I am a lover given to fooling simple-hearted dames, Laila speaks ill of Majnoon when I instigate.
Men rejoice at union, but do they ever die? Lo, the wish of the severance night has blown into my face.
May it prove to be the last, the spate of blood I see, Who knows what dreadful sights still await my gaze?
Though life has fled my hands, it still flickers in the eye, Let them lie before me, the cup and flask of ale.
He shares my faith, he has my trust, is partner of my trade, How dare you malign Ghalib, right in my face!
  © Anuradha Warrier 

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